Going beyond zero waste to landfill
We achieved our target of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill from our factories in 2014*, six years ahead of schedule. We're focused on maintaining that performance, while reducing and reusing our waste.
Building on the achievements of our zero waste mindset
We think business can make a real contribution to the global effort of “doing more and better with less.” And our experience of working to reduce waste makes us believe that not only is it possible, it’s also good for business.
In December 2014, we achieved our target to send zero non-hazardous waste to landfill (ZWL)* across our global network of 242 factories in 67 countries. This means that the non-hazardous waste that was previously sent to landfill is now reused, recycled or recovered.**
We're proud of this achievement, which we believe was a world first on this scale in our industry.
And we believe it demonstrates the kind of responsible consumption and production called for by UN Sustainable Development Goal 12 – specifically, target 12.5 which focuses on substantially reducing waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse.
We think the model that drove our factory achievements is repeatable beyond a manufacturing environment. So, we set out to extend our zero waste mindset to other parts of our business. By February 2016, nearly 400 additional Unilever sites in 70 countries – including offices, distribution centres and warehouses – had achieved zero non-hazardous waste to landfill.
Maintaining our zero waste to landfill performance
Although we achieved our zero waste to landfill ahead of schedule, we still have a job to do to ensure that we maintain our performance. In 2019, 0.1% of our non-hazardous waste was disposed to landfill from seven of our sites.* We take any lapses very seriously and are confident that we have robust procedures in place to highlight any issues.
Each of our sites has undertaken a detailed mapping of its mixed waste streams so that we can consider every material we consume. We have put dedicated collection and storage points in place to make waste segregation easier. We have also given training to employees involved in waste management, who have then developed detailed action plans for reuse, recycling or recovery.
Where we find approaches that work, we transfer them to our other sites around the world – and we've found solutions requiring little, if any, investment, ensuring that our progress makes business as well as environmental sense.
Zero waste from offices, as well as factories
We also send zero non-hazardous waste to landfill in 38 offices across our top 21 countries. 100% of our office waste is reused, recycled or recovered, preventing an estimated 2,045 tonnes of waste reaching landfill each year.
How are we producing less waste?
We’re producing 40% less waste than we did in 2008
In 2019 we disposed of 145,299† fewer tonnes of total waste than in 2008, a 96%† reduction per tonne of production. But we’re also producing 40% less waste than we did in 2008 – and we’ve achieved around €223 million in cumulative cost avoidance.
Now that we send zero non-hazardous waste to landfill, we want to keep focusing on minimising the amount of waste we produce. We’re doing this in two ways:
Our waste reduction journey starts with refuse – that is, avoiding waste being generated in the first place. Eliminating or reducing waste at source is the best way of cutting our environmental impact and creates the most opportunities for savings. For instance, at many sites, we require suppliers to use returnable pallets and containers, thereby limiting the amount of waste that we need to manage. And our Nashik factory in India is now using reusable containers for its chocolate supply, improving their relationship with the supplier and reducing the amount of plastic waste generated via reverse logistics.
We want to be as efficient as possible at converting raw materials into products and reducing the amount of waste generated. We don’t stop here. We focus our efforts on all material coming through the factories. For example, at our Casalpusterlengo Home Care factory in Italy, forklift trucks are now using lithium batteries, which not only consume 25% less energy but also last three to four times longer than lead ones.
Several of our sites are working with their suppliers to reduce the packaging that raw materials are delivered in. Our Nashik factory in India, for instance, receives their jam pulp in drums that can be washed and reused over and over again reducing metal waste generation by over 100 tonnes a year.
Treating waste as a resource
A central part of our zero waste mindset is to look at waste materials as a resource. Where we have not been able to find ways to refuse or reduce waste, we look for routes to reuse or recycle it. And if these solutions are not available, we recover energy from the waste.
We look for ways to reuse our materials ourselves or make them available for others. When others reuse the materials we no longer need, we don’t count this as a waste because it helps reduce the consumption of natural resources in other industries.
For example, in our Cuernavaca factory in Mexico, we receive raw materials and packaging in cardboard boxes. We have found that these boxes can be reused by other industries, such as for transporting snacks around the country. In 2019, we found a way to reuse sludge waste from our savoury factory in China to feed earthworms.
The majority of our waste is recycled, sometimes in innovative ways. For instance, our Pouso Alegre factory in Brazil composts organic waste and uses this to fertilise fruit gardens that grow food for the staff canteen. At our Carrascal site in Chile, we have created a garden with furniture made from pallets, and plant pots made from drums. For most sites, recycling means segregating waste into paper, plastics, metal and glass, and we can often sell this to recycling companies for them to make into new products.
Some of our sites have extended their waste programmes to ensure that their employees also have a way to recycle the waste they generate at home. Our Pouso Alegre site in Brazil implemented an ‘eco-point’ recycling area for employees to use at the entrance to the factory. And our St Petersburg factory in Russia has a similar collection point that allows employees to dispose of hazardous waste like batteries and mercury thermometers in a safe way.
Where we have not yet found routes for recycling, we recover waste materials and use them to generate energy. At many of our factories around the world, we do this through our global partnership with the cement manufacturer LafargeHolcim and its waste management service provider Geocycle. Our waste materials are pre-treated and used as alternative fuel and raw material in their cement kilns. Even the ash is used – it is fully incorporated into the cement clinker, so it doesn't leave any residues.
Another example of waste recovery is our waste tea from our Agarapathana factory in Sri Lanka. This is used as a fuel in our boilers, which also helps reduce the carbon emissions from our site.
Tea waste you can wear
Stubborn tea stains on work uniforms at our Ceytea factory in Sri Lanka weren't always a thing to celebrate. In fact, they were a problem on the management's 'to-do list' – until a sudden scientific insight turned tea waste into a brilliant new business idea.
The factory, where we make ready-to-drink tea powder for our Lipton iced tea business, generates five tonnes of tea sludge every day. Researchers from SLINTECH, Sri Lanka’s leading nanotechnology institute, came calling to investigate the potential to create a new natural dye for fashion brands. Extensive research and development (R&D) showed that our tea waste could create a ready-to-use natural dye. Not all plant dyes give a dye that holds fast to light and washing, so we also needed a partner from the textile industry – and this was garment-dyeing and wash firm Dynawash.
We supplied the base ingredient, SLINTECH carried out the R&D and Dynawash worked on the fabric dyeing and commercialisation, all with the help of funding from the Export Development Board of Sri Lanka. After nearly three years of research and one year of R&D, SLINTECH came up with a process that created an effective dye that met industry standards. And in R&D terms, that’s quite fast.
The result was T-Hues, a non-toxic, biodegradable and eco-friendly natural dye brand, made from our factory tea sludge. What helped was the uniformity of the natural dye, which could be made into both a ready-to-use soluble powder and a liquid concentrate, just like synthetic dyes. The dye can be transformed into a range of 15 colours to suit textile manufacturers’ needs.
It also has wider environmental benefits; using natural dyes like T-Hues can cut water consumption and dyeing time – and could reduce the carbon footprint from dyeing a cotton crew neck t-shirt by 75%. Today, all our Ceytea factory employees’ uniforms are created from fabric that has been dyed with natural dye made from our own tea. And workwear is just the start. The T-Hues team are in the process of presenting ranges of naturally dyed scarves, shawls, hoodies and t-shirts to big retailers, including the UK’s Marks & Spencer.
This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals
Reducing food waste
By wasting less food, we can help increase food security. That’s why in 2015 Unilever signed up to the Consumer Goods Forum’s commitment to measure the disposed food waste footprint from our manufacturing sites.
Through our zero non-hazardous waste to landfill achievement, we have already done a lot of work to ensure all waste – including food waste – is reused, recycled or recovered. But by working with others, we can eliminate waste on an unprecedented scale. As the world focuses on the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development to end extreme poverty, fix inequality and tackle climate change by 2030, the time for us all to drive more action on waste is now.
* We aim to maintain our achievement of zero non-hazardous waste to landfill (ZWL) across our manufacturing sites worldwide. However, incidents can occur where small amounts of non-hazardous waste are sent to landfill in error or because of operational changes e.g. acquisitions or supplier issues. We consider ZWL is maintained when less than 0.5% of non-hazardous waste is disposed to landfill in the 12-month period.
** Non-hazardous vs hazardous classification of waste streams is determined by local legislation in the locations where each of our factories operate. What constitutes hazardous waste differs between countries and definitions can change frequently.